CBC News
Comic strip captures life in Toronto
Dan Brown, CBC News Online | December 5, 2003

The underground comic strip m@b is the creation of Toronto's Matthew Blackett.

But even though Blackett writes and illustrates each three-panel instalment himself, it's not entirely accurate to say that he's the one who comes up with the cartoon's thoughtful storylines.

Matthew Blackett's latest release of M@B contemplates Toronto life
So who really writes m@b? The people of Toronto.

Blackett's work doesn't tell a story in the same straightforward vein as, say, Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse. Instead, it consists mostly of snippets of conversation that Blackett has overheard while walking on the street or riding the subway. Call it cartoon-vérité.

"For the most part, it's almost all real," the 29-year-old explains. "The strip is pretty truthful to myself."

In one recent strip, Blackett's cartoon alter ego is walking in the rain. A woman he has never met taps him on the back and says, "I like your umbrella. Is it magic like mine?"

That brief exchange is the entire story. There's nothing more to it. The strip is typical because it contains no big laughs or obvious punchlines. It's a vignette, a snapshot of life in Canada's largest city.

Another strip has Blackett observing two elderly women on a subway platform. "You get out of the house every day?" one of the women asks the other. "Wow, you're living the life."

These are the kinds of moments that big-city dwellers experience all the time. With his simple, expressive drawings and sparse dialogue, Blackett turns them into something poetic.

It's this whimsical tone that has earned m@b a following. "I like the gentleness of it," says Catharine Tunnacliffe, managing editor of eye Weekly. Blackett's comic appeared for the first time in the alternative magazine in March.

Tunnacliffe brought Blackett on board because of the strip's unapologetic Toronto touches. Many comic strips take place in an unidentified Everycity, North America. Blackett, by contrast, refers to Toronto streets and landmarks by name. And in some panels, the CN Tower can be seen looming in the background.

"We just wanted something that really spoke to our city," Tunnacliffe says. "It immediately grabbed me. It was like 'Let's look no further. This is the man.'"

Tunnacliffe's publication has been carrying m@b for only a few months, but it has had a much longer life in other forms. Blackett launched a web version in 1999, and before that he published it as a booklet for his friends, who also serve as the strip's supporting characters.

On Dec. 11, the cartoonist will hold a party to celebrate m@b's fifth birthday. The event is the latest in a growing line of parties hosted by Blackett - every time he completes about 60 strips, he binds them into booklets and throws a release party to celebrate. He charges admission, then hands the booklets out to his guests.

"I really like giving it away for free, actually," he says. "I have this weird economic model where I'm not making any money off it."

What he has done is build a readership. He gives away about 1,000 copies of each issue; roughly 200 people visit his site daily.

"He did develop a strong, local following of people in his age group," says Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, the store that has become the heart of the comic industry in Toronto.

"He did his [strip] in a very particular way, that he was both using a website but also doing these launch parties, so that people anticipated and looked forward to the next issue."

Birkemoe says the thing that separates Blackett from other artists is his persistence. He manages to put the strip out regularly (he has even published an anthology, Wide Collar Crimes). His stick-to-it-ness is unusual among cartoonists, who generally don't have much time to dedicate to drawing and writing - because they also hold down day jobs.

For the moment, Blackett - whose main influences are Calvin & Hobbes and Bloom County - doesn't have a regular job to distract him. That's because the same week that his comic had its debut in eye Weekly, he was fired from his position as art director for The Hockey News.

Blackett says the official reason he was dismissed was his chronic lateness. "For years I had been late. It's always been like five minutes, 10 minutes late," he says.

But Blackett believes the real reason is that he's a non-conformist: "I'm not a really good office person in any kind of way."

When his superiors told him not to wear shorts in the office, for instance, Blackett came up with a novel response. "So what I did was, I bought capri pants." His boss said he was trying to get around the dress code by wearing long shorts; Blackett insisted he was really wearing short pants.

He admits he enjoys an atmosphere where he can push buttons. "I actually kind of thrive in it, because I was the rebel of it," he says. "In the end, I really thought I was helping them to become a little more humane."

The same spirit is at work in m@b. Blackett believes his comic is "extremely political on a subtle level." During the recently concluded Toronto mayoral campaign, for example, Blackett wanted to throw his support behind left-leaning candidate David Miller (who went on to win). So he drew a strip in which his cartoon self warms to the sight of lawn signs with Miller's name on them.

Blackett says that at the moment, his work for eye Weekly pays enough to take care of his grocery bills. He has explored syndication, without success, preferring to stick to his own independent path.

Says Birkemoe: "Fundamentally, cartoonists are not an outgoing sort. And they're also not good self-promoters. And he is very good at both of those things."



Matthew Blackett:
  • educated at Toronto's Humber College
  • grew up in North York, now lives in Toronto
  • main influences are Bloom County, Calvin & Hobbes
  • first comic strip was Fifty More Pounds, about Blackett and a roommate
  • anthology: Wide Collar Crimes
  • each strip takes about one hour to complete
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Matthew Blackett M@B comics.
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